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The Manitoba NDP is putting a $260-million price tag on a safe return to schools, with a plan to cap class sizes, supply students in need with masks and ramp up mental health resources in the fall.
Ahead of the official back-to-school plan’s release, NDP Leader Wab Kinew unveiled an "alternative plan" Tuesday afternoon during a news conference at Vimy Ridge Park.
Kinew’s plan includes: a 15-student class cap and hundreds more teachers to accommodate it; renting and building new temporary and permanent classrooms; investing in additional personal protective equipment supplies and more custodial staff; increasing mental health and technological support resources; and expanding budgets for school transportation.
"Back-to-school shopping is going to be a lot different this year. We’re going to have masks on the shopping list, for one thing," Kinew said Tuesday, flanked by NDP colleagues and local parents on the park playground.
Touting his party’s five-pillar plan, he said there is a need to balance protecting kids from COVID-19 and looking out for their developmental and educational needs — and the only way that can be done is by investing in education.
The expansion of school infrastructure to accommodate smaller class sizes is the largest single investment of the five, totalling $80 million, per the party’s math. (Kinew said the plan is based on estimates from Manitoba Education figures, the party’s 2019 campaign infrastructure math and in collaboration with stakeholders, custodians included.)
The NDP recommends divisions turn school libraries and gymnasiums into temporary classrooms and rent vacant businesses, conference venues and other spaces to allow for all of Manitoba’s upwards of 200,000 students to resume in-person instruction. No in-school child-care programs should have to lose their space as a result of public health protocols, Kinew added.
Speaking in support of the plan, Winnipeg mother Zilla Jones said Tuesday she wants her kids — who are entering Grade 4 and 8 — to return to school with physical education, music and extracurricular activities.
"Kids already have more than enough screen time (without e-learning)," Jones said. "It’s really important they be back, but it has to be done safely."
When asked if it is feasible to hire 400 new educators to teach smaller classes before September, Kinew cited the ever-changing nature of policy-making during a pandemic. "If we think back to March, we changed our education system 180 degrees within the span of a few days," he said, adding that if the province is willing to invest in education, there’s no reason why it could not implement the NDP’s recommendations during the next six weeks.
Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen was not made available for an interview Tuesday. A spokesperson said in a statement that the province is committed to providing more detail on the return to schools by Aug. 1.
Divisions have been asked to prepare for three scenarios: near-normal learning with minor public health precautions; in-person learning with physical distancing in place for K-8 students and if space is limited, blended learning for high schoolers; and ongoing remote learning.
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.
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